. Historical context of FPU: Anabaptist and Mennonite
By FPU Faculty Roberts/Camp
As we move into the early 20th century these marginal peoples called Mennonites become increasingly drawn into the national culture in
culture placed heavy demands on distinctive communities to conform to American
ways. The “melting pot,” with its images of conformity and renunciation of
distinctives, struck the Mennonite world. For Mennonites, as for many other
ethnic and religious groups, it became increasingly difficult to maintain
social and cultural identifiers—i.e., the German language, rural isolation,
educational purity, etc. Additionally, it also became difficult to maintain
theological distinctives. Some inside (and outside) Mennonite circles were
calling for the Mennonite church to move toward evangelical fundamentalism; others
claimed a more progressive theology was the right direction. For Mennonites
these social and theological pressures were intensified with the building of a
militaristic state where patriotism became linked with performance in military
service. For much of the 20th century, peacemaking (one of the hallmarks of
Mennonite faith and practice. historically) has not been a popular position. America
How does one maintain identity when modernity seems to be eating away at core theological and ethical values? In Mennonite circles in the mid-1940’s, there was a perceived need to re-appropriate the strengths of the past to face the world of modernity. Central to this movement were two very important documents, both appearing in 1944 (incidentally the year that FPU was founded): Harold S. Bender’s essay, “The Anabaptist Vision” and Guy F. Hershberger’s—Peace and Nonresistance. Bender’s aim was to position Mennonite identity within the context of American denominationalism. Hershberger’s aim was to articulate a theology and ethic appropriate for Mennonites as they were increasingly engaged in the institutions of the larger American society. Their strategy was to help Mennonites identify themselves, to themselves and to others, as the bearers of a distinctive faith and practice system, rather than buying into the American cultural and religious system. This story is replicated by many immigrant communities—Swedish Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Moravians, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and others.
2. The Anabaptist Vision
Bender’s 1944 vision of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith perspective, rooted in the Bible and the Radical Reformation, was formed around three axes: discipleship (ethical integrity and service to humanity), the church as a covenanting voluntary community that practices mutuality, and accountability (an ethic of love and nonresistance that governed all relationships—personal, civil, and religious). The purpose of the vision was to make visible what this particular group of Christians called Mennonites were called to articulate. Christian faith was not mystical; it was ethical and to be realized in identifiable human communities. Community was an important antidote to the social direction of 20th century individual Christianity. In contrast to systematic theological formulations or pious individualism, this vision offered a portrait of the church as the interpretive community for discerning faithfulness in this modern age. Bender’s conception reflected a conviction that the real threat posed by modernity was ethical rather than doctrinal variance. Ethical faithfulness made possible a discernible religious community. For Mennonites, belief has always been important, but practice has been equally if not more important. Orthodoxy is important, but ortho-praxis is more important. Faith is a way of seeing, a way of believing, but discipleship, living it out is most important.
Bender concluded the essay with a plea for the church to be a distinctive Christian social order. He did not call for radical withdrawal. He did not propose to reverse the slow but steady social drift of Mennonites into American society. The form of Christian community that Bender had in mind was paradoxically a strategy for both separation and integration, for withdrawal and engagement, for consolidation and dispersion. Bender did not wish to reify the traditional boundaries of the past. Instead he offered Mennonites in
ideological self-consciousness. He did not reject tradition. Instead he
believed that distinct communities could embody a witness (mission). They could
show the world that corporate ethical discernment and reconciliation were
indeed possible. Thus, Anabaptism, as it came to function in American Mennonite
life, carried a dual meaning. It offered distinct community, but also witness.
It promoted particularity, but also ecumenicity. It integrated Mennonites into
the world, but preserved a rhetoric of difference. It brought respect, but gave
new eloquence to the language of dissent. America
Thinking further with Kray bill
Kraybill has written his book with this particular Christian tradition and vision in mind. He is asking, “Does this particular tradition have something to say in the 90’s about living the ethic of Jesus?” He invites all of us, Christian and non-Christian to reflect on the moral imperatives we live by. Kraybill’s book is an attempt to interpret what the message of Jesus says in this kind of world. The message of Jesus for the Christian and the church today is not to be co-opted by the social, religious, cultural, and economic forces of the day.
Try some of these to continue the thought process:
1. Find a sentence or paragraph from Kraybill which you found provocative in a positive way, and explain why. (What did you agree with? What convicted you? Where do you think he raised an important point or issue? What did you enjoy?)
2. Read a sentence or paragraph from Kraybill which you found provocative in a negative way, and explain why. (What did you disagree with? Does Kraybill at points seem unrealistic? Simplistic? Too extreme?)
3. What in our world most needs the upside-down kingdom approach suggested by Kraybill?